“Nipper was really a very clever little dog—of course one is always inclined to think one’s own dog cleverer than those belonging to other people—but he was most original.” — Francis Barraud
As a kid I was obsessed with music, and I listened indiscriminately to anything and everything on the family record player. Since my brothers were all much older I had a lot to choose from. Two brothers maintained the rock collection: Pink Floyd, Boston, The Clash, Elton John—whose parade of loose lesbians on Goodbye Yellow Brick Road filled my pre-adolescent brain with all manner of troubling fantasy. My second eldest brother, still in the closet and preparing for an (ultimately unrealized) future in the priesthood, was busy checking off a major box on the gay cliché checklist by building up what had to have been the most comprehensive collection of Barbra Streisand albums in Northern Minnesota. I listened to them all, from her years belting out Broadway and jazz standards (amazing) to her disco ‘70s output complete with Jewfro (oy).
It was while listening to favorites in my parents’ classical collection that I became familiar with Nipper the RCA Victor dog. He was a peaceable companion on RCA Victor record labels, lazily spinning around the spindle as I left the real, mundane world behind and escaped into the exotic, pristine mental landscapes conjured by Rimsky-Korsakov, Debussy, or Chopin, or as I anticipated My Favorite Thing in the World, that blissfully inexplicable rapture that music would suddenly without warning send down my spine and all across the back of my neck. Cast against the clean black of the record’s label, Nipper was both sophisticated and homey, a lovable white terrier with tan ears (elsewhere painted occasionally black), his head cocked with a quizzical tilt as he stared into the shiny brass horn of a gramophone, forever listening to "His Master’s Voice.”
As a kid I’d simply assumed Nipper was a fictional creation, no more real than Tony the Tiger or the Keebler elves. And since it wasn’t possible for anyone not in a recording studio to capture their voice on an LP, the idea that he was listening to his actual master’s voice didn’t compute, so I took it as given that the phrase “His Master’s Voice” was just a metaphorical suggestion of RCA Victor’s fine sound quality. The final confirmation that Nipper was a complete invention, dreamed up by RCA Victor in some dusty, long ago yesteryear, was the fact that I had never, ever seen any of the family collies stop and listen to anything being played through the big, boxy living room speakers.
So it was a surprise to find out that not only had Nipper been a real dog, as a commercial icon he hadn’t been invented by RCA Victor at all; in fact, RCA Victor didn’t even exist yet when “His Master’s Voice” was first introduced to the world. Before Nipper’s image would grow into such a world-famous icon, it would first exist as simply a painting, painted by an owner wanting to commemorate a much-loved favorite pet after the pet had died. Moreover, the sound equipment he was depicted listening to in the original painting was not a disc gramophone at all, but an Edison-Bell cylinder phonograph. This was a crucial difference, since a phonograph, unlike a gramophone, not only played back sound, but was capable of recording as well.
Nipper was most likely a fox-bull terrier mix, despite being identified on the official RCA site as a Jack Russell. His name came straightforwardly enough from his habit as a puppy of nipping at peoples’ ankles. He also had a weakness for chasing rats, a passion that once cost him an eye when he dashed after a rat and ran into a thorn bush.
He was originally owned by an Englishman in Bristol named Mark Barraud, a painter of French descent born into a long line of painters. When Barraud died destitute in 1887, Nipper was taken in by Barraud’s brother Francis in Liverpool.
Francis was also a painter, one with a particular knack for painting animals. Gifted as a painter though he was, he was also apparently somewhat deadline averse, or as at least one source described him, just plain lazy. In a biography of Eldridge Johnson, the founder of the Victor Talking Machine Company who would later become a key player in catapulting Nipper and “His Master’s Voice” to fame first in America and then around the world, the biographer, Eldridge Johnson’s son, notes that Barraud was “lazy” and was known by the nickname Bumblebee, “because he was a chronic bumbler in everything he did.” If so, considering his final success, Francis Barraud should stand as a beacon of hope for bumblers everywhere.
The story behind the original painting of Nipper is somewhat elusive. Like a G-rated Citizen Kane or a murder- and-rape- free Rashomon, the more one consults different sources on the subject, the more slippery a definitive history becomes. Some sources suggest that the phonograph in the original painting was actually owned by Mark Barraud, meaning Nipper as depicted would be listening to the ghostly sounds of his deceased master’s voice. While this is a compellingly haunting and sentimental thought, more accurate sources—including the occasionally confusing Francis himself—indicate that he, Francis, was the phonograph’s original owner. When Francis would indulge his habit of making recordings of his own voice and replaying them, he loved the way Nipper would stand mystified, listening to Francis’ voice coming out of the phonograph’s horn.
After Nipper died in 1895, Francis fondly recalled this endearing habit of Nipper’s. He was suddenly struck with the idea that it would make a fascinating—as well as commercially rewarding—subject for a painting, and settled on a title: “His Master’s Voice.” He would later claim, “It certainly was the happiest thought I ever had.”
For a model, Barraud made use of a photograph he had taken of Nipper sitting on his own, added a slight more tilt to Nipper’s head, then painted in the phonograph next to him. He didn’t complete the painting until 1898, three years after Nipper’s death, registering the original painting not as “His Master’s Voice” but as “Dog looking at and listening to a phonograph,” probably for purposes of commercial clarity. When Francis tried to find prospective buyers, publishers either low-balled him or rejected the painting outright, one buyer insisting, “no one would know what the dog was doing.” When he tried to sell it to the Edison-Bell Company in New Jersey, he was told in no uncertain terms, “Dogs don’t listen to phonographs.”
Francis himself disliked the look of the phonograph’s horn. “It was black and ugly,” he later explained, “and I wanted something more pictorial.” A friend recommended that Francis visit the fledgling Gramophone Company and ask to borrow one of the larger brass horns used on their new gramophones.
After months of attempting to sell the painting, it was in this way—not searching for a sale but rather in pursuit of a bit more color and a more engaging design—that Barraud found himself at the end of May in 1899 in the offices of the company that would open the doorway not just to the simple sale of a painting but to both his future security and Nipper’s eventual world renown.
Still, his first visit to the Gramophone Company was hardly a story of instant success. William Barry Owen, the company’s manager, wasn’t exactly crazy about Barraud’s painting and was largely satisfied with company’s logo at the time, an angel etching onto a gramophone disc. Despite his ambivalence, Owen, on the advice of one of his clerks, took a gamble and decided to let Barraud borrow one of their machines, under the condition that Barraud replace the phonograph in the painting with the entire gramophone, not just the gramophone’s horn. If Barraud did so, the Gramophone Company would agree to buy the painting outright. After some months of slow back and forth, a deal was finalized that September.
Barraud delivered the results the next month. On this first revised version, Barraud simply painted over the original phonograph, and the original phonograph could still be faintly seen. Nevertheless, Owen immediately voiced his approval, paying Barraud what seems now like the paltry amount of £100—£50 for the painting and £50 for the transfer of the copyright—but at the time it was an amount Barraud was more than happy to receive. Neither he nor Owen would have had reason to suspect it at the time, of course, but a soon-to-be-legendary icon had been born.
Still, besides appearing in a couple of pieces of advertising literature, nothing much happened with “His Master’s Voice” for the next few months. Then, in May of 1899, Emile Berliner, the German-born American inventor who had invented both the gramophone and the disc record and had founded the Gramophone Company, was visiting the company’s London offices. He noticed the painting of Nipper hanging in Owen’s office and responded to it at once.
Berliner contacted Barraud and requested a copy of the painting, which Barraud provided. After bringing the painting to America, Berliner, with the help of his partner Eldridge Johnson, made Nipper the official trademark for the Victor Talking Machine Company (the newly formed version of the American Gramophone Company, which had been forced to close down for legal reasons.) Nipper would travel the globe, becoming the company icon for not just the Victor Company in America, which would eventually evolve into RCA Victor, but also for HMV (short for “His Master’s Voice”) in Great Britain and JVC (Victor Company of Japan).
Curiously, British Gramophone, the company that had first purchased the rights to the painting, would wait ten years before finally replacing their angel with Nipper as their primary trademark. The sidelined angel would then be used only in locales where, for legal reasons, Nipper could not be used. It finally regained its former status as a primary trademark in 1953, when it became the EMI Angel.
Francis Barraud would make a cottage industry of painting and drawing variations on the Nipper painting for numerous publications and individuals. He reproduced the original painting itself 24 times for executives and board members of the Gramophone Company, each copy at a cost of £35, with the exception of one copy that he gifted to the company. This was called the “Chinese Copy,” and it was an exact replica of the original, Barraud even going so far as to paint in the original phonograph and paint it out again. In 1919 the company awarded Barraud an annuity of £250 per year. This was raised to £350 a year five years later.
In the early 20th century, starting around 1910, Nipper’s image became ubiquitous on record labels, home appliances, and all of RCA’s advertising. HMV in Great Britain turned him into their store icon, which over the years became more and more stylized until settling into its current simplified silhouette. Nipper statues still sit atop former RCA buildings in Albany and Baltimore (although the Baltimore Nipper took a vacation for a couple of decades in a Virginia development lot). A giant Nipper in stained glass graces the tower of a former RCA building in Camden, New Jersey, which – threatened for years with demolition – was successfully commercialized into the opening of new condos in 2003, when a newly replaced Nipper stained glass was unveiled. While RCA largely retired Nipper in the late ’60s as a commercial icon, he was revived in television ads in the ’90s, live and unshackled from his gramophone, with a new companion, a cuddly and marketing friendly puppy named Chipper.
Just as the gramophone replaced the phonograph in the painting of “His Master’s Voice,” so did it dominate and then replace the phonograph in reality, the last phonograph cylinder being printed in 1929, 52 years after Edison first recorded “Mary had a little lamb” on his revolutionary machine. Records finally gave way to cassettes in the 80s, and cassettes succumbed to the CD juggernaut in the 90s. Now CDs themselves are doing battle with the almighty Internet, the source of the vast majority of my own music consumption, on services like Spotify, Pandora, Grooveshark, and my current addiction, ThisIsMyJam.com, a social site where music obsessives of all kinds can share their favorite music one song at a time. Just last month, in May of 2012, it was announced that for the first time ever in the U.K., digital downloads surpassed CD sales, and it’s just a matter of time before the same mark is reached in the U.S. Meanwhile, the HMV entertainment store chain in Britain, expanding worldwide a little over ten years ago with over 300 stores internationally, now finds itself closing stores and struggling to eke out an annual profit.
Yet Nipper as a cultural image seems to carry on. In 1994, HMV forced the band Beautiful South to change an album cover they had made of an entire audience of Nippers staring at a gramophone onstage. And in the early ’00s, notorious street artist Banksy appropriated the classic image, adding Nipper to his stable of recurring images and bringing Nipper full circle from the fickle status of commercial icon back into the nominally more permanent world of art, albeit with the tongue-in-cheek addition of a bazooka that Nipper now placidly aimed right back at the oppressive void of the gramophone horn, into which he had stared for over a century.